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Trenton Makes: How 'Analog Trenton' is Capturing the Sound of the City

Heading out to Bill NobesDirty Old Robot Studio on a chilly fall evening can be downright scary. While some of the brightest stars in Trenton’s local music scene head down there to contribute to Nobes’ Analog Trenton project, you get the feeling that Nobes wants it that way.

The reason for my trek to this quiet part of Jersey was to see the punk-rock outfit PISSED! record a special version of their song “Hands Up” for Analog Trenton, a project that Nobes describes as “capturing the Trenton music scene in 100% analog.” Without understanding the scope of the project, I recall seeing images of the likes of Molly Rhythm and Black Collar Biz recording at spots like Champs in Trenton (as well as a special recording session during Art All Day 2018 at Trenton Coffee House & Records featuring Skelly, Nikki Nailbomb, Josh Adair, Bern the Bastard, and more) for this compilation, which aims to feature 30+ artists from a number of genres into this compilation that’s being pressed to vinyl (with CD and digital versions also being made available). Additional acts that have recorded for the project include Roebus One, DATA_WOLF, and Wade Wilson, among others.

Analog Trenton cover created by @BayronIllustration

Analog Trenton’s Indiegogo campaign is set to end on Black Friday (aka November 23, 2018); more than half of the $12,000 needed to complete the project has been raised, but they are still looking for funding. Perks for backers include everything from pre-ordering the vinyl, CD, and digital versions of the compilation to producer credits, chances to attend recording and mixing sessions, and more.

Amidst the theremin and Moog keyboards and tape decks and massive multi-track mixers sitting in the dining room area of Nobes’ home (“a real dorm room feel,” Nobes described), Bill shared the genesis of Analog Trenton. The concept for a compilation of this size started out roughly two years ago, around Thanksgiving while Bill was on his “way to Nikki (Nailbomb)'s birthday party at Abdul's. At that party it was just all musicians just playing to celebrate Nikki's birthday, together. It wasn't about anything other than that. I was like, ‘we should probably record this, this whole thing.’ I think that might be the first night I came up with the idea.”

Like many collaborative projects in the art and music scenes in Trenton, it snowballed from there. Nobes would speak about it to one person, and they’d be interested in the idea. Slowly, it morphed into the series of recording sessions that not only went down at Champs, but Trenton Coffee House & Records as well, that is numbering over 20 acts, and is set to wrap in late December of 2018.

This isn’t a project Bill dived into on his own, though; while it’s his vision, he recruited Nikki and Griff Sullivan to act as co-producers on Analog Trenton. They both are mainstays in the Trenton music scene, and help bringing in talented individuals that truly highlights what Trenton makes. “It's extremely important that we represent as much as we can the city of Trenton and all of its diversity,” Bill explained. “It wasn't just about what we like. It's about a true snapshot of what makes Trenton music right now. We have way more than will fit in a vinyl so what we're gonna do is sit down with the tracks and figure out which ones create that best snapshot.” Don’t fret; while the vinyl release might be limited to 20 or so artists, the CD version will add more acts, while the digital version of the compilation will feature everything recorded.

For music lovers, especially fans of music recorded before the dawn of the digital age’s impact on music, the idea of recording straight to analog might not be foreign. For those who just love a good song, it might be a tad confusing. Seeing Bill—a true renaissance man who’s done everything from directing his own stage plays to managing events in the New York and Hoboken scenes—in his element, guiding PISSED! through their roughly two-hour session, it’s an amazing sight to see. Bill’s doing everything, from troubleshooting instrument levels to picking the exact moment to stop the recording (hopefully those seconds of vocal+resonating cymbal sounds stay in the final version). There’s a sense of performance to his producing, with his ever-present hand signals at the start and end of each recording. Even if he’s just speaking aloud, making sure that all systems are go before pressing record, you get the sense that Bill has a particular way of producing, a true passion for committing the sound of Trenton to analog tape.

Bill’s also learning on the job. He shared his experience recording Jersey hip-hop luminary Roebus One and his unique way of recording vocals. “He did every third verse,” Bill explained, “and then he did two tracks fill in here, fill in here, fill in here. We had five levels of fill in.”

“When [Roebus] writes,” Bill continued, “he overlaps the words. When I was listening to some of his tracks, I was like ‘how are we going to do that in analog?’ We had him doing some crazy stuff for the final fills. At one point I had him stand eight feet away from the mic and yell stuff. Then the next one I put in a ribbon which is very sensitive and have him get right next to it and whisper.”

The spirit of experimentation is alive and well in his studio, although with PISSED!, the session was much more straightforward than you’d imagine for a bunch of Capital City punks. The four-man outfit began the session working out some of the changes in this special version of “Hands Up,” and after two run-throughs of the song in full, they laid down two takes on the song (which questions the issue of police brutality) before doing individual takes of each instrumental and vocals. Bill was always willing to try something new, making sure the musicians felt comfortable with their take before moving to the next step. It was collaborative, and fun; a truly welcoming environment to record in (or just be a fly-on-the-wall of).

In the end, Bill made sure to point out that while this compilation will highlight the sound of Trenton, Analog Trenton’s mission runs deeper than that. “[The] idea started as a snapshot of Trenton music,” Bill shared, “but it's turned into a snapshot of Trenton community.” He recalls one session where the family vibe of the scene was alive, with Nikki and company working on vocals while chilli was being served to those in the session. Anyone who’s worked near the art and music communities in Trenton have had that moment, where the family vibe of the scene makes these events about more than the music. It’s people coming together and building something, or just watching out for their peers. It’s the spirit of Trenton that gets lost in the salacious headlines about the city. It’s what true Trentonians (and those who’ve been adopted into this patchwork community) see, feel, and experience on the regular.

After PISSED! completed their session and took off into the November night, Bill and I parted ways. Stepping into the cool evening air, I felt like I’d truly experienced...something. Going to see music performed live can be a life-altering experience. Dropping by Dirty Old Robot and seeing a piece of Analog Trenton be constructed right before my eyes? It puts a different spin on the concept of live music, and more importantly, what makes up the Trenton music scene. For such a historic town, committing that excellence to analog tape is fitting, and should be a part of every true Trenton music scenseter worth their weight in pork roll.

Interested in contributing to Analog Trenton? Head over to their Indiegogo campaign page TODAY!

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